Friday, 2 March 2012

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, March 2012)

Vladimir & Vovka Ashkenazy, 2 Pianos
Decca 478 2940 / *****

This is a totally enjoyable collection of Russian music played on two pianos. Only two works were originally written for that medium. The first is Scriabin’s Fantasy in A minor, composed when he was only 17, and still under influence of his idol Chopin. Its understated charm and gentility are leagues away from his more familiar emotionally volatile self. The other is the 20-year-old Rachmaninov’s First Suite (Op.5), sometimes referred to as the Fantaisie-Tableaux. Its four movements are inspired by Russian poetry, and imbued with typical Slavic pathos. Obsessed with bell sounds all his life, the third movement Tears is redolent of sad tolling, while the finale Easter is a joyous festive carillon which incorporates the Orthodox chant Christ Is Risen.

The anthology also features third generation pianist Vovka Ashkenazy as a brilliant crafter of transcriptions. His arrangements of Mussorgsky’s Night On Bald Mountain and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, both originally orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov, are highly effective showpieces. Also included is Glinka’s non-nationalist Valse-Fantaisie, a trifle of salon-like sensibilities. Both Vovka and his father Vladimir bring a certain authority and glorious sweep to music of their homeland.

HINDEMITH Orchestral Works
Sao Paulo Symphony / John Neschling
BIS SACD-1730 / ****1/2

Twentieth century modernism and orchestral lushness seem to be mutually exclusive entities, but not so in the case of German composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963). It is hard to imagine anyone else who could use terse and astringent themes to build monuments of tonal grandeur and textural opulence. Come to think of it, Johann Sebastian Bach was such a creator as well. It was Hindemith’s lifelong devotion to Bach’s musical principles that spelt his own success, evident in the three popular orchestral works here, in thrilling performances from Brazil and recorded in sumptuous sound.

The Mathis Der Maler Symphony is perfectly proportioned in three movements, using themes from Hindemith’s opera of the same title on the life and conscience of German Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald. The ballet suite Nobilissima Visione has the frescoes of Giotto on St. Francis of Assisi as its inspiration, the final movement being a splendid passacaglia that Bach would have whole-heartedly endorsed. The best known is Symphonic Metamorphoses On Weber, which has the unusual attribute of being entertaining as well. The chinoiserie of the Turandot Scherzo is hilarious and the fugue based on the theme’s inversion enters into the brassy realm of jazz bands. Listen to the final March, and one might imagine Hindemith writing the soundtrack to Star Wars. This is strangely but seriously enjoyable music.

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